Saturday, April 30, 2011

Words & Music: Modern Master, Stephen Sondheim

Anybody who knows me knows how infatuated I am with Stephen Sondheim.  So I simply must wrap up our lyricists' month with two of his tunes. 

West Side Story?  Sweeney Todd?  Candide?  A Little Night Music?  Gypsy?  On The Town?  Sunday In The Park With George?  That's him.

I chose these two tunes for contrast, and I hope you enjoy them.

First, "Green Finch and Linnet Bird" from Sweeney Todd, which Knopf sent around last week in their poem-a-day email for National Poetry Month.  Their take: 
"'Green Finch and Linnet Bird,' sung by the character of Johanna in Sweeney Todd, may not be a poem, but to read it without its haunting, angular melody is to 'hear' it slightly differently."
See what you think...
Green finch and linnet bird,
Nightingale, blackbird,
How is it you sing?
How can you jubilate
Sitting in cages,
Never taking wing?

Outside the sky waits,
Beckoning, beckoning,
Just beyond the bars.
How can you remain,
Staring at the rain,
Maddened by the stars?
How is it you sing
How is it you sing?

Green finch and linnet bird,
Nightingale, blackbird,
How is it you sing?

Whence comes this melody
    constantly flowing?
Is it rejoicing or merely halloing?
Are you discussing
Or fussing
Or simply dreaming?
Are you crowing?
Are you screaming?

Ringdove and robinet,
Is it for wages,
Singing to be sold?
Have you decided it's
Safer in cages,
Singing when you're told?

My cage has many rooms,
Damask and dark.
Nothing there sings,
Not even my lark.
Larks never will, you know,
When they're captive.
Teach me to be more adaptive.

Green finch and linnet bird,
Nightingale, blackbird,
Teach me how to sing.
If I cannot fly,
Let me sing.
It's not a Sondheim favorite of mine, but I admire the way his melody supports character development:  Check it out on YouTube to see the contrast between words-on-the-page and melody-driven, embodied music... .  You get the sense that Joanna is a tad touched, no?  And that her condition has quite a bit to do with her forced captivity...

And for sheer verbal play and showbiz fun:  "Agony" from Into The Woods.  In the lyrics below, the Princes Charming debate whose love life trumps whose.  Neither has wedded his conquest yet at this point...
I hope you'll enjoy the lyrics for their comic allusions, character comedy, and insights into human nature...AND, I found a video of the reprise, in which the two princes have married but haven't quite conquered their innate wanderlust.  This video stars the two original Princes from the Broadway cast: They are truly funny, and fine singers, so do scroll down and take a look!


Did I abuse her
Or show her disdain?
Why does she run from me?
If I should lose her,
How shall I regain
The heart she has won from me?

Beyond power of speech,
When the one thing you want
Is the only thing out of your reach.

High in her tower,
She sits by the hour,
Maintaining her hair.
Blithe and becoming and frequently humming
A lighthearted air:

Far more painful than yours,
When you know she would go with you
If there only were doors.

Oh, the torture they teach!

What's as intriguing-

Or half so fatiguing-

As what's out of reach?

Am I not sensitive,
As kind as I'm handsome
And heir to a throne?

You are everything maidens could wish for!

Then why no-?

Do I know?

The girl must be mad!

You know nothing of madness
Till you're climbing her hair
And you see her up there
AS you're nearing her,
All the while hearing her:




Though it's different for each.

Always ten steps behind-

Always ten feet below-

And she's just out of reach.
That can cut like a knife!

I must have her to wife.

Of course, as is true of all great songwriters, Sondheim leaves breathing space for the music to create a perfect marriage.  If this sparks your interest, I recommend Finishing The Hat, Sondheim's recent collection of annotated lyrics and dishy commentary (he's his own toughest critic, but spares nobody).  Great vintage photos and insights into this master-writer's process too.

As always, please support the songwriters who change us with their art.

MFB, on Broadway,

Thursday, April 28, 2011


Today, The Blue Bookcase asks:

Discuss your thoughts on sentimentality in literature. When is emotion in literature effective and when is it superfluous? Use examples.

Then Ingrid of The Blue Bookcase goes on to respond to her own modification of prompt, offering thoughts about what makes a "legitimate" RESPONSE to literature.  Hop on over there to judge for yourself whether she makes her case or not, on its own terms...

However, I'll try to respond to the actual question as written.

For the purposes of this brief response, let's first clarify our definitions to note that sentimentality is usually construed as excessive or inappropriate emotion.  And we'll assume that superfluous emotion here means "too much", just as we would expect, so it's actually fairly synonymous with one aspect of sentimentality

So then, how does a writer create a work of sentimentality rather than "effective emotion"?  In my experience, sentimentality in literature is the product of either a. character development that's naive, sloppy, or unskillful OR b. characters who themselves are overly or inappropriately emotional.

In the former case, sentimentality in literature annoys me, as does any piece of writing in which the author shows disrespect to the reader through sloppy writing, and as such is ineffective.  Consider the more recent mystery-suspense from too-prolific supermarket paperback generators - and much current young adult "literature" - in which stock characters set in familiar plots at a fast pace stand in for well developed characters experiencing genuine human challenges and responding with action, thought, and emotion.  In both cases above, sentimentality results from formulaic plotting and ill- or un-developed characterisation.  Or - even worse perhaps - shallowness of insight & talent.  Think Twilight.  Granted, none of these works are literature (at least not in my book), so they needn't meet any standard as such. 

However, sentimentality as a conscious element of characterization can work to thematic advantage:  Consider Dolores Umbridge in the Harry Potter books (whether or not you would classify them as literature): her sentimentality about kittens works effectively to heighten readers' distaste for her otherwise draconian behaviors.  Or take the sentimentality of the chatterbox Miss Bates in Jane Austen's Emma: perfect little character-based commentary on the psychological effects of a parochial, hierarchical society on those with no prospects to change their station.  Or the protagonist in Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily" - there, sentimentality heightens the macabre, producing an unforgettable and complex work of literature.

And in farce, excessive emotion can be hilarious. The cat fight between Helena and Hermia - or better yet, Bottom's Pyramus - in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Almodovar's Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown, or the husbands (and wives) in Lysistrata can double us up with laughter, thus achieving the playwright's literary goal with its intended audience/reader response.

However, in romances like Twilight or unsuccessful attempts at tragedy (you name the one that struck you as cheesy and unbelievable as it escalated to its climax), "superfluous" or too much emotion at an inappropriate time can jar the reader out of the plot and backfire, effectively dismantling characterization to make even previously believable and/or sympathetic characters appear shallow or false, thus undercutting thematic elements as well.

So there, that's my response.  What say ye?

Please do hop back to The Blue Bookcase and then hop to others' responses: Whether I agree or not, I always enjoy the intellectual enrichment of mulling over their views, as everyone offers nuggets of insight.

MFB, sentimentally,

And I found an intriguing discussion of sentimentality, intended as advice for creative writers, on
There, Ginny Wiehardt does an able job of contextualizing the question for writers while offering Welty, Chekhov, and Irving for her exploration of the question.  I must say that I got a tad carried away with this question, visiting multiple sites, but this one seemed to clarify my own focus, and might be a decent place to start one's own internal conversation. 


Wednesday, April 27, 2011

I feel like I've betrayed my best friends.


Rumi, Coleman, Vincent:  I'm sorry.  You didn't deserve it.

And I'm beginning to see that for me, it's best not to read an entire anthology at once: All the poems blur together and I find myself frustrated by the ones with which I don't connect.  Do you ever feel the same?

This week, I went cover to cover with 20th century American poet Edna St. Vincent Millay's Collected Lyrics and Coleman Barks's volume of translations of the 13th century Sufi mystic poet Jalal ad-Din Rumi entitled Rumi: Bridge to the Soul

Beautiful poems pepper the Millay collection, and Rumi's ecstatic cryptic verses - in Barks's perfect tone - are like the most beautiful Pilobolus dance you've ever seen: seeming inscrutable but emotionally mesmerizing. If you experience them on their own terms without over-thinking them, you'll find yourself deepened spiritually without understanding exactly how you got there. 

And in some ways, the Millay poems - many excerpts taken out of their context for this collection - felt similarly disorienting and - to be honest - a bit thin and trite, and sadly without much psychic payoff.  That's possibly less a measure of their innate value than of what happens when an editor clips snippets from whole works and when a reader moves swiftly from one to the next.

So, I'll restate: I do believe I did all these poems a disservice by attempting to swallow so many at once; my own gluttony brought on literary indigestion.

Ordinarily, when I encounter a poem on its own, I offer much more of myself to it, freely giving my attention from start to finish, fully expecting beauty and brilliance.  Slamming through these collections in a fit of voracious consumption didn't allow for that opening to individuals. 

In fact, when I was half way through this feast, I asked a book-blogger pal on for advice on how to keep focused on each poem, and she suggested taking two minutes out to reflect and summarize after each one.  This helped quite a bit, but still, the experience in memory feels and looks like a big clump of grass clippings mowed down and piled up.  All the tiny new clovers and buttercups, the verdant stems of new grass stretching toward the sun that poems should be have collapsed in my memory due to my own overly programmatic attempt to raze them all at once, in neat little rows, en masse.  You can take the reader out of suburbia, but... I suppose.

1. I will attend to my own process and - at least for the time being - seek out a poem a day, all year long, but let go of the misguided need to read whole books of poetry

2. Heartened by last week's Poem In Your Pocket Day, I'm looking to team up with a few intrepid bloggers to establish a weekly Sunday Poem Hop... That way, we can say hello to each other on what's a fairly leisurely day for most, and do a quick peruse of fine poems to return to all week.  Anybody out there want to ante up early?  We'll start on May 1st!

MFB, one at a time,

Want a taste of the Rumi & the Millay, one or two pocket-worthy poems?

Friday, April 22, 2011

Blog Hops: An Earth Friendly Way to Travel

Another nifty hop was the every-other-
Thursday one at The Blue Bookcase.
In honor of Earth Day, may I also offer the put-your-feet-up-with-a-good-cup-of-coffee-and-your-laptop-on-your-lap, carbon-free pleasure of blog hopping.

You'll meet fascinating people from all over the world, worry-free; sample multiple opinions and prose styles; find new books to love; and more than likely make a few friends at the same time.

If you haven't hopped yet, you might enjoy the Friday Crazy-for-Books blog hop.  It's humongous, but you don't have to visit everybody and you don't even have to have a blog.  Just click on the URLs to visit the blogs, comment when you feel moved, follow as often as you feel you can, and offer your own post to other book-minded travelers in the blogospheres...

This week's question is:
When you find a book you love, do you go out and read all the rest of that author's oeuvre?
My answer is:  often, but not sequentially or in a clump.  In my brash and over-exuberant youth, when I first stumbled across Annie Dillard or T.C. Boyle or Margaret Atwood (all Earth-friendly authors, for certain), I promptly started trolling libraries and used bookstores for old volumes, and looking through the NYTimes Review of Books each week so get a jump on their new releases. 

But I quickly realized that to thoroughly enjoy a favorite writer's works, I must sample other writers in between:  sort of a palate cleansing, or a trip round the buffet table, I suppose.

What's your response to this question, and what are you doing for Earth Day?
(We've got an Earth Day challenge up at check it out, and if you're interested just register to win. We'll be checking throughout the day for new members to approve, so go ahead - we'll count you!)

MFB, and keep on hoppin',

p.s.  I'll be starting a Sunday "Poem in Your Post" hop here on May 1, 2011, so come join us and bring your favorite poem:  old or new, any style, any writer...!

Earth Day Confession

Me, on leave: still consuming, but more for travel, less for
daily life, and significantly less overall.
or "How Unemployment Shrunk My Ecological Footprint".

Allow me to admit:  I am a paper hog and a resource squanderer by nature.

I will drive 6 miles to the library or 10 to the bookstore and then back again, and there I will (yes, resell, but also) buy books.  Books are made of trees (unless they're e-books, but those devices carry their own set of electronic resource consumption issues), which are - despite what some say - a restricted resource.  Gas is fossil fuel, and we know that has its limits too.

And when I teach, my students use literally reams of paper for essays, stories, poems, etc. and I use reams more for handouts.  And, bottom line, even after consulting my friend Doug the AP Environmental Science teacher, I have to accept that as an English teacher there's a certain extent to which - due to students' varying and often unpredictable access to technological resources - in order to offer equitable access to education, I simply must use paper. 

And may I also admit this?

This year, taking a temporary leave of absence from teaching, I'm using FAR fewer resources while finding much more time to cook locally-sourced whole foods rather than heat up microwave dinners, repair aging objects rather than dumping and repurchasing them, putter around with the veggies and fruit trees and chickens toward a native/permaculture suburban yard, walk or ride the bus places (because I have more time to fit longer transit times into my schedule), and in many other ways shrink my ecological footprint. (click the link for an interesting quiz to see how much impact you make)

And I am making zero income. 

So my current lifestyle is not sustainable.  When the savings run out, it's done. 

OK: now I've done the 'admitting I have a problem'. 

I'm turning it over to the Universe, and to all of you, to help me figure a way to maintain as much of this pared-down lifestyle as I can when I return to work.  Could you offer me a suggestion on where to begin?

I know I can do it, but I can't do it alone.


p.s.  Tomorrow our Earth Day Challenge at draws to a close at 7p.m., but there's still time to join (I'll check many times today to approve members joining via this post), then make a pledge and enter to win 20 trees-for-books to offset at least a bit of the impact from our shared passion for reading. 

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Witch and Wizard by James Patterson & Gabrielle Charbonnet: What She Read Review offers 20% off used books
for Earth Day, so if you're going to get it, get it there.
Witch and Wizard is a young adult Collins-meets-Rowling page-turner.

The believable, sparky voices of our two first-person protagonists (and title characters) will definitely draw readers in, the uber-quick pacing with 2-3 page chapters, and the many punny references to current books, movies, and slang will make young, savvy readers smile.

From the title, one might misjudge the focus here, as Witch and Wizard is less Harry Potter, more Hunger Games dystopia w/magic bubbling beneath the surface.  In fact, it's more Maximum Ride than either, although The One Who Is The One is a shameless iteration of He Who Shall Not Be Named, as protagonists with special powers stretch their fledgling wings.
The plot? Wisty and Whit (soon, I imagine, to be played by Mylie Cyrus and Cory Monteith - when he's in his 30's and still looking the stud high school quarterback) are two lovably irreverent and gorgeous teens who are imprisoned by America's new totalitarian regime, only to discover that the hip woodsy outings and pacifist vibe their parents have been espousing all these years are nothing but Wicca warmed-over, and that they themselves have inherited the new Wicca 2.0 skill set.  As the siblings perform progressively more magical but unlikely feats of escape and survival, they - surprise! - become adept and increasingly powerful at their crafts, then set out to save all the kids of the world from the evil One Who Is The One and all his henchfolk.

It's a fast read, full of "What?  You expect us to swallow that?" moments:  Why are they allowed to bring a book and a drumstick into a top-security prison?  Where did they get the piece of wire and the Dixie cup?  Which one was Billy, and why did he betray them?  Why did the spell that turned him into a snipe wear off in an hour, but the one that turned her into a mole rat didn't wear off at all?  That sort of thing. 

And the shifting first person narrative can get annoying as it doesn't alternate by chapter and the siblings' voices aren't so very distinguishable sometimes, so you're a page into one of the many 2-3 page chapters here and then you realize:  Oh, it's Wisty, not Whit.

On the other hand, it definitely passes the time quickly and - for once in a recent YA read - there's no egregious sex or violence (though there's a bit of generic, non-graphic violence, to be sure.)

It reminds me of Gideon's Sword in this regard:  It's a mediocre effort from a major genre writer, but one that demonstrates strong knowledge of suspenseful screenwriting, enough so that it's palatable all the way through, despite all the major heavy-handed moralising, half-envisioned alternate dimensions, minor characters flitting in and out at all-too-opportune moments, inconsistencies, and predictability.

If you can overlook the above and want to while away a few hours in a fast-paced adventure or hope to entice a 'non-reader' into a novel that's more like an action flick on paper, it actually IS worth a try.


p.s.  Action:  Back to charting out my own YA novel, esp. since formula fiction seems to sell so well.  From this novel, it seems clear that one can't get sued for blatant copying of characters and plot points, so I'll make a list of books to model on, then at least sketch out setting, characters, conflicts for a book proposal or three.  For sure, it must be a series, right.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Think and Grow Rich (briefly): Begging your feedback...

Or perhaps better-cleped:  Think and Grow Dated.
And of course I had to read the "Action Pack"
edition, which offers nothing more than a few
pages of activities at the end...

Who's up for an update??

I just attempted to read Think and Grow Rich, the perennial self-help business bestseller - and obvious precursor to The Secret - by Napoleon Hill.  And now my question to myself is: Why did I find it so boring?

The principles have been proven again and again.  The writing is solid, if not riveting.  The potential for utility is high.  And much of the advice is still current day common sense, well worth revisiting.

Sure, I've been taught that money is the root of all evil and that we should all work extremely hard for every meager penny (and we should save 'em after we earn 'em) and we should give a significant portion of those pennies to "the poor" as well (who look a lot like us if we follow the rest of the formula).

OK, so maybe - looking at it now - I have issues.

But what I'm thinking is this:  It's so, so, so yesterday.  All the examples are - understandably - about millionaire men from the '20's and '30's, and this adds insult to injury in our day and age.  Steel barons creating megalopolies are the heroes here, and the founders of Coca Cola and big banking.  I'm not against them as people or even as examples to support Hill's precepts, and I know they lived in quite a different age, but now we all know how much damage can be done to the earth and the workers and the consumers while a few white men think and grow rich.

I'm considering writing an update myself, a Think and Grow Rich for all of us poised at this particular precipice in history with all our attendant powers, one I could stomach and even embrace, for people who want more than riches, but also contribution to the long term sustainability and well-being of all who share this planet and to the mechanisms of the planet itself.

So, my second question:  Would anybody buy it?


p.s.  I know there's an "update" or two floating around out there on Amazon,, and, but apparently they consist of the original text, supplemented with italicized passages of current examples.  And they get none-too-enthusiastic reviews.  I'm thinking more of a chapter by chapter rewrite with social entrepreneurship and world-citizen action in mind.  You know, "Action Reader" it up...
     If you think you would read a volume like this and put it to use, do let me know.  I could start with the first chapter this week, and offer one per week here for a while, just to see what y'all think and to give you the opportunity to take what - for the most part - is darn good advice and information and shape it to change your - and our - world for the better.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Words & Music: The i's Have It - Joni Mitchell & Patti Griffin

For National Poetry Month, I'm offering up Songwriter Sundays, featuring musicians who pipe us into that that misty and often numinous realm on the border between poetry and lyrics.

Try these two, all ye poets and musicians.  You know them, but recall how much you love them today.
Two singer-songwriters and one stellar chanteuse whose lyrics are almost always poetry.

First, Patti Griffin:  "Long Ride Home".  Quite the stunner.  You'll see here that fans adore this tune, and I do too:  It's a character-driven story and the narrator is decidedly not the singer.  And it will haunt you, even if you've  never encountered as situation in any way similar.  This video might not be as clear as some visually, but you can hear the lyrics more clearly than in the others. 

Everything this woman does is magic.  This one in particular.

Long black limousine
Shiniest car I've ever seen
The back seat is nice and clean
She rides as quiet as a dream
Someone dug a hole six long feet in the ground
I said goodbye to you and I threw my roses down
Ain't nothing left at all in the end of being proud
With me riding in this car, and you flying through the clouds

I've had some time to think about you
And watch the sun sink like a stone
I've had some time to think about you
On the long ride home

One day I took your tiny hand
Put your finger in the wedding band
Your daddy gave a piece of land
We laid ourselves the best of plans
Forty years go by with someone laying in your bed
Forty years of things you say you wish you'd never said
How hard would it have been to say some kinder words instead
I wonder as I stare up at the sky turning red

I've had some time to think about you
And watch the sun sink like a stone
I've had some time to think about you
On the long ride home

Headlights staring at the driveway
The house is dark as it can be
I go inside and all is silent
It seems as empty as the inside of me

I've had some time to think about you
And watch the sun sink like a stone
I've had some time to think about you
On the long, on the long
Oh the long, on the long
On the long ride home

And now, the icing on the proverbial cake...

Joni Mitchell's  "Woodstock" as sung by the late, great Eva Cassidy.  A classic sung by a brilliant songstress.  Meant to inspire you to enjoy every single moment today, and to look them both up and download a few tunes if you haven't already.

I came upon a child of god
He was walking along the road
And I asked him, where are you going
And this he told me
I’m going on down to Yasgur’s farm
I’m going to join in a rock n roll band
I’m going to camp out on the land
I’m going to try and get my soul free
We are stardust
We are golden
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden

Then can I walk beside you
I have come here to lose the smog
And I feel to be a cog in something turning
Well maybe it is just the time of year
Or maybe it’s the time of man
I don’t know who l am
But you know life is for learning
We are stardust
We are golden
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden

By the time we got to Woodstock
We were half a million strong
And everywhere there was song and celebration
And I dreamed I saw the bombers
Riding shotgun in the sky
And they were turning into butterflies
Above our nation
We are stardust
Billion year old carbon
We are golden
Caught in the devils bargain
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden

Please support the songwriters and musicians who change us with their art.

Happy Sunny Sunday, and MFB as always,

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating (briefly): What She Read Review

Compact and graceful, stately in its pace, spiraling outward as it slips imperceptibly onward.
Look inside to sample Bailey's
graceful prose.

A snail or The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating?  Or both.

Think Annie Dillard meets Emily Dickinson: The Housebound Pilgrim at the Terrarium.

This brief memoir of Elisabeth Tova Bailey's two year sojourn with a snail and its progeny offers musings on debilitating illness, natural history, interspecies relationships, evolution, time, and beauty too. 

Bailey, as far as can be gleaned from the book itself and her website, has been living mainly horizontally for many years due to a rare illness brought on by a rogue pathogen.  One day, a friend brings some violets and a woodland snail to her bedside and so fatigued is Bailey that she finds observing the snail to be a perfectly paced diversion.  The bulk of the book offers her observations of her snail's quotidian adventures interwoven with research on the history and science of mollusks that, years later, Bailey accomplished when her health improved a tad.

Certainly, this would be a lovely book to read on a summer afternoon or a winter snowbound day.  Bailey's fluid style and unusually close observations offer a quietly engaging read for anyone with a modicum of curiosity about the natural world and about what it might feel like to be in Bailey's situation.  And anyone who loves words will smile at reminders of 'gastropod', 'malacologist', 'prostostomes', 'deuterostomes', and 'estivation'.  By no means daunting, these flashbacks to high school bio enliven the reader's experience here.

Finally, it's profoundly heartening to know that this young woman, felled early in her life by illness, did accomplish this lasting record of her world and her ways of seeing it.

Action:  I will make a morning pilgrimage into my yard and garden to see what's stirring each morning for a week (unless it's snowing as it was this morning!).  And I'll record my observations and reflections, in full-on Annie Dillard style. 
         I've long considered writing a small book about my imperfect forays into suburban permaculture.  One of our favorite summertime activities is to stroll about our small, oddly acute-triangle-shaped yard and "survey our domain", appreciating all the flora and fauna. Would you be interested in my efforts and minor catastrophes?  The mole in winter?  The battle of the orchard masons and the yellow jackets?  The deer and the cherry tree?  The rat and the hens?  The heather's rebellion and the block dogs' revenge?

MFB, slowly and steadily,

p.s. You'll enjoy this trailer...Listen closely, friends...

p.s. And for all you Crazy-for-Books blog hoppers, I'd say that, in addition to what I offered above, Ms. Bailey - certainly the central human character of this memoir - seems observant, self-deprecating, thoughtful, and - as one might well understand - alternately sad and determined.  Although this memoir focuses on the snail, her fascination with the creature offers us many glimpses of her compassion and empathy for all beings as well.  And she was a professional gardener before her illness, so we read about her love for the plant kingdom too.  In retrospect, and thanks to this question, she's a character well worth meeting.  I hope you'll try her book.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Poem In Your Pocket Day Blog Hop Today!

And the posting is easy...

1. Carry your poem in your pocket today, sharing it in as many ways as you see fit.

2. Comment below by posting your poem and responding to others' poems.

3. If you've got a blog or website, use the linky tool to offer your URL so we can easily hop over to see your poem post.

4.  If you like, stop back later today or tomorrow to tell us about how your Poem in Your Pocket Day went and/or hop over to and post your experiences in the Poetry In Action group.

That's it!
And may the poems be with you.

Here's mine:

i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun's birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any--lifted from the no
of all nothing--human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

                                    e.e. cummings

(And even though I'm not religious, I still adore this most celebratory of poems.)

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Poem In Your Pocket Day tomorrow. Today: "Thanks".

And my thanks to the wonderful Jackie of Jackie Is Reading for offering this poem not only to us bloggers but to her entire school!  She performed it in honor of National Poetry Month, and blogged about her experience as well as all the other actions she's taken on poetry's behalf this month.

I hope you'll consider stopping by tomorrow to join us with your own contribution for our Poem In Your Pocket Day Challenge.

And, no, you don't have to sign up, nor must you have a blog or website, in order to participate!  Just stop on by, post your poem, and invite your friends to do the same.   Then hop around blissfully gathering word-bouquets from around the world.

MFB,  and looking forward to seeing you tomorrow!

Here it is:


with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water thanking it
smiling by the windows looking out
in our directions

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you

over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks we are saying thank you
in the faces of the officials and the rich
and of all who will never change
we go on saying thank you thank you

with the animals dying around us
our lost feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
we are saying thank you and waving
dark though it is

                                 - W. S. Merwin
From Migration: New & Selected Poems (Copper Canyon Press, 2005). Copyright © 1988 by W. S. Merwin. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

p.s.  Bonus for Pocket Poem Participants:  If you email me ( or sign up as a member & then join our group at, I'll enter you to win one of the two stellar poetry collections pictured above.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Top Ten Tuesday: From Page to Screen With Bonus Poems!

For today's Broke and Bookish Blog Hop that asks us which books we'd like to enjoy as movies, I'll honor National Poetry Month by offering ideas for bio-pics about poets who dared.

Start with Edna St. Vincent Millay:  A wild woman who wrote such gentle poetry, unafraid of public responses to her artistic endeavors and her social liaisons (not that she remained unmoved by public scrutiny, but rather that - for the most part - she lived her life as she pleased, regardless).  A motion picture made from the stellar biography Savage Beauty by Nancy Milford would raise eyebrows and accolades even now, I'll warrant.

And a film of prolific poet-performer-
autobiographer Maya Angelou's life story would offer surprising drama and depth spanning pivotal moments in the 20th-21st centuries.  Did you know that she was the first African American female cable car operator in San Francisco?  And she toted up many other firsts for African Americans during the Harlem Renaissance and the Civil Rights Movement as well.  And how about her brilliant inaugural poem for Bill Clinton, "A Rock, A River, A Tree"?  Stunning.  And her performance of "Still I Rise".  Woa.  Come on, Oprah: Produce this!

And what about a film featuring Javier Bardem living the life of poet Pablo Neruda?  Who knew that poets could be action heroes and political world movers?  Why not celebrate that?  Il Postino was based on a fictionalized version of Neruda's time in exile on the island of Capri, but that's just a tiny fragment of a colorful and action-packed writer's life.  And there's a documentary in the works right now, but I'm talking full-on bio-pic, and I'm voting for Bardem in the lead role, not just for his stellar acting and easy-to-look-at nature, but also for his similar artist-activist life path.  And who wouldn't go to see him play Neruda?
Finally, I look to my shelf of favorite poetry and see Rumi, and Kahlil Gibran (writer, artist, activist, and third best selling poet of all time, behind Shakespeare and Lao Tse) side by side.  Wouldn't you find it memorable to see their lives acted out upon the screen, to witness the links between real life action, writing, and ecstatic spirituality?  And the line of A-list actors chomping at the bit for those parts would stretch all the way down Hollywood Boulevard, no?

There. I feel fine with five, but I'd love to hear your choices for poets who dared, and for who should play them.  Who would you cast as Vincent?  As Maya?  As Rumi?

And do share your own favorite idea for a book (needn't be poetry...) that needs to make that leap to the big screen... 

If you're inspired to wade a tad further into the splendidly vast ocean of poetry, why not join me here (or at on Thursday for our 'Poem In Your Pocket ' blog hop?  I'll put a linky up so we can see each others' posts (our cyber-equivalent of pockets), and you can share your pocket poems in our Poetry In Action group at Action Readers too.  Plus, there's a book give-away too for those who email me at or sign up on our site before midnight on the 14th!  (See this post for details.)

See you then!  Viva la poesia!  And thanks as always to The Broke and the Bookish blog hop!


Monday, April 11, 2011

Audio Phile: The Tale of Despereaux (briefly)

Are you like me? 

Do you love a heartwarming and funny story performed enchantingly by a brilliant actor? 

Do you strive to 'read' more and make your driving time joyful or instructive by listening to books on CD or podcasts or downloaded audio books?

If so, you'll love the Newbery winning  Despereaux. 

I'm the one:  Until this week I'd not read it or seen the animated film.  I did, however, read and listen to Kate DiCamillo's wonderful - and quite different - Because of Winn Dixie a few years ago, so when I saw this on the shelf at our little local library branch/coffee shop/bakery, I snatched it up at once.

And am I glad I did.  Actor Graeme Malcolm is utterly enchanting, as is this tale of a tiny mouse with big ears who falls in love with the human Princess Pea.  Young Despereaux is punished for this interspecies transgression, but that's just the beginning of his tale.  When the deeply conflicted rat Chiaroscuro and his Machiavellian mentor Botticelli enlist the help of dim-witted serving girl Miggory Sow in a dastardly plot, Despereaux must muster his courtly courage to save Pea and prove his love.

If joy is on your list of springtime to-do's, you simply must listen to this one.


Action Reader Step: I'm going to search my library's catalogue for other books read by Graeme Malcolm, and also search Netflix.  May is Malcolm Month in my house!  In addition, I'll post this review on Amazon and Goodreads.

FYI:  When I looked up Graeme Malcolm, I found that he is the audiobook reader for Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson, which I thoroughly enjoyed ("in the text", not audio) and reviewed this week!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

'Words & Music': When Lyrics Are Poetry, Featuring Paul Simon

In celebration of National Poetry Month, we're featuring songwriters - both contemporary and classic - whose lyrics draw heavily on the poetic:  They sing out the writer's love affair with language and feature imagery & metaphor, alliteration and sound-sense, and each song feels like a crystalline whole.

I'll bet you've a few favorite songwriters to champion too: Let me know in the comments and I might just feature them here.

This week, it's a classic folkie who keeps reinventing himself through rhythm and rhyme:  None other than the inimitable Paul Simon.

I've chosen two: First, the old-school Simon and Garfunkel "I am a Rock" (can't get much more metaphorical than that, and a direct nod to all us compulsive readers in the last verse...).  Wow.  Check the camera angles; and Art Garfunkel seems to "get" singing-to-the-lens a tad bit better than Paul.

And second, just for the joy of it, because the sun has FINALLY come out here in the Pacific Northwest and the very first pink and purple flowers have busted their little buds, Simon's rousing gospel number "Gone At Last" with Phoebe Snow. And I think it rather proves my point about great lyrics easing off to make room for all the other elements of a song...

Paul Simon's still going strong as a songwriter and performer, so if you haven't checked him out in a while, why not give him a few moments of your time right now?  He's got a spring tour on, so maybe you'll indulge in the rare pleasure of listening to him live.  I have, more than once.  Always a night to remember.

And he did write what must be the single most fabulous song title of all time: "Simple Desultory Phillipic (Or How I was Robert McNamara's Into Submission".  The lyric's pretty wild too, with all its naming and internal rhyme.  Hit the title to get the link from Simon's site.

Please support the artists, songwriters, and musicians who change us with their art.


Want the other lyrics?  And some musings on poetry vs. song?

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Warm-Up Bonus #1: Poem in Your Pocket Day

Don't forget:  April 14 is Poem In Your Pocket Day!
(sponsored by the National Poetry Foundation)

We'll gather both here and at to share our poems.

Shoot me an email at OR sign up on our website for a chance to win one of the two collections below.  In your email, let me know what poem you're considering, then come on back on Thursday, April 14, and post your poem both here (and in your own "pocket" blog, if you're a blogger).  We'll link our blogposts and/or offer our poems in the "comments" section here.

Let's make this a terrific celebration, in solidarity with the National Poetry Foundation,, students, teachers, writers, readers, and poetry lovers all over the world!

Here's a fine one that my mom sent me yesterday.  Consider it for Poem In Your Pocket Day on Thursday?

The nifty prizes (let me know which one you'd prefer when you email your intended poem to

Happy Poetry Month, everybody!

I am falling in love
      with my imperfections
The way I never get the sink really clean,
forget to check my oil,
lose my car in parking lots,
miss appointments I have written down,
am just a little late.

I am learning to love
      the small bumps on my face
      the big bump of my nose,
      my hairless scalp,
chipped nail polish,
toes that overlap.
Learning to love
      the open-ended mystery
            of not knowing why

I am learning to fail
      to make lists,
      use my time wisely,
      read the books I should.

Instead I practice inconsistency,
      irrationality, forgetfulness.

Probably I should
hang my clothes neatly in the closet
all the shirts together, then the pants,
send Christmas cards, or better yet
a letter telling of
      my perfect family.

But I'd rather waste time
listening to the rain,
or lying underneath my cat
     learning to purr.

I used to fill every moment
     with something I could
          cross off later.

Perfect was
     the laundry done and folded
     all my papers graded
     the whole truth and nothing      but

Now the empty mind is what I seek
      the formless shape
      the strange      off center
      sometimes fictional

                            - Elizabeth Carlson, Source: Teaching With Fire

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Started Early, Took My Dog: What She Read Review

Test drive Atkinson's skillful prose at Amazon.
Buy it at or
Uncommonly clever, funny, and thought-provoking, from first page to last.  I jest not: 'Tis passing strange and passing marvelous, this most recent of Kate Atkinson's novels, and my first encounter with Jackson Brodie, her multi-book ex-cop P.I.

In this story of chance meetings, instant adoptions, cover-ups, Rippers, found treasures, and families lost, the interwoven tales of Tracy Waterhouse, 50-something ex-detective in search of the love of her life; always-second-best veteran stage actress cum Magnum PI's mum Tilly;long-murdered crack whore Carole Braithwaite and her orphaned child; and the divorced, confused, and somewhat cynical Jackson, happenstance and swift, instinctive choices propel us as we leap from the '70's to the present and back again on a mystery tour rife with laughter, profundity, and - most notably - quickly and expertly drawn characters who are the center of this novel, even when the centers of their worlds cannot hold.

Unlike other mystery-suspense-crime novels of my recent acquaintance, Started Early, Took My Dog is a book I will recommend to one and all, whether or not such genres are normally within their customary reading.  And that's because the plot, although swift-moving and intriguing in itself, is really not what this book is about.  It's the characters:  Tracy, the big, butch ex-police officer whose instant choice to buy a kid propels her into the love she's always wanted and Tilly, the slightly-less-than-grande dame tilting under the constellations of her own dementia and Courtney, the stoic four-year-old whose smallest gesture could break a cold man's heart and Barry, the dissolute cop drowning in layer upon layer of guilt for his own compromising acts and of course Brodie, he of the title 5:30 a.m. rising and the accidental canine companion.

You'll want to know what becomes of them, what they'll think and feel next, what they'll say, and how they'll react to what fate and their own chance choices deal them.

And if you're like me, you'll slap sticky after sticky into this book for passage after passage marking stellar turns of phrase, quick and penetrating insights, and perfectly apt applications of beautiful quotes borrowed from the greats of Western literature.

It's a true reader's delight, and I suggest you buy it for yourself and your friends and your book group today.

My highest marks, and my appreciation to Kate Atkinson and to Hatchette Books for bringing this book into my wee sphere.  I won't happen upon such a lively and gratifying read any time soon, I'll wager, and I'm grateful.


Transform-My-Life Action:  First, I'm ready to start organizing my favorite quotations and slapping them on the table whenever chance allows.  This novel sports characters who naturally and believably weave telling snippets from Dickenson and Shakespeare and Pope and many more into their thoughts and speech.  And it's about time I owned up to doing the same in my head, but rarely aloud.  So:  here's to memorizing not just poems - as I'm wont to do from time to time - but also a smattering of quotations to trot out on appropriate occasions. Hold me accountable, local pals and friends from the far corners of the interwebs:  In May, ask me to recite a few via IMing on the new ActionReaders website.

Change-The-World Action:  I will be passing this book along to many of my friends and colleagues and family members.  Look out Mom:  Mothers' Day's coming up!  And I'll be raving on Amazon and Goodreads too. 

p.s. Regular readers will note that I am not a fan of recent crime and suspense novels, at least not the ones I've been reading lately.  This book breaks the mold, because it's all about the characters, the themes of loss and life history taking their toll and attempts at redemption and wholeness, and the language itself that cradles all the people and ideas.  This is a 4-5 star read disguised as the fourth in a series of crime novels about the character Jackson Brodie.  But since I haven't read any of the earlier books I can attest to the fact that it stands alone entirely, and offers readerly satisfaction in and of itself.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

An Atlas of Impossible Longing: What She Read Review

The novel goes on sale in paperback TODAY! 
Get it at or
It did not end the way I expected. 
And the last part is best in this modestly-paced novel of 20th century India.

In An Atlas of Impossible Longing, publisher-writer Anuradha Roy (not to be confused with Arundati Roy, author of The God of Small Things) traces one family's dysfunction through three generations, offering up a tale of caste and ill-fated love and decaying houses.  It begins with patriarch Amulya's decision to move from Calcutta to a small town in Bengal to build a stately home in the country (mining country, at that) for his large family.  Then, as sometimes happens in novels about India these days (think The Inheritance of Loss or A Fine Balance) we witness the ravages wrought by a patriarchal culture and by the larger caste system as well.  Women, bullied and battered by their solipsistic husbands, go slowly insane or act out maliciously toward socially inferior women.  Boys are raised to be as self-absorbed as their fathers and girls to serve them well.

In Roy's world, we also see the trickle down of these trends - both familial and cultural - while the 20th century trods on apace through partition and into the mid-50's.  The children of turn-of-the-century mansion-builders unwittingly carry on these legacies as do their children in turn, if in subtler ways and with less reliable outcomes, as houses decay and nature slowly reclaims its jungles and rivers from the men who attempt to control it. (masculine pronoun used advisedly here)   In the most recent generation of this particular family, caste-less and marooned orphans attempt to wrest their lives from the ravages of their pasts and their upbringings.  But as the novel's title might suggest, their world does not go easy on them either.

Roy's novel reads with the stately pace of a hot Indian summer, and one does indeed sense her characters' impossible longings, crushed by time, custom, and just plain human meanness and manipulation, again and again.  And again we have a tale that leaves us feeling that - at least in some recent fictive Indias - people rarely escape into the relationships of their choosing, and happiness cannot be captured for long. 


ActionReader Step:  Get busy repairing the myriad home and yard problems that one ultra-wet winter has wrought.  I could ignore these issues until I don't see them any more and the house falls down around me (as do some characters in this novel) OR look at my home with the eyes of a visitor and get busy making it whole again.  This book reminds me of the dangers of the former - and how ignoring exteriors may indicate something to others about our interiors, so I will choose the latter in order to cultivate wholeness in myself as well.

For additional commentary on symbolism and point of view and characterization and the title of An Atlas of Impossible Longing...
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